With all the angst and distress the recent presidential election has caused some, perhaps a good political comedy is in order. Ocean State Theatre Company’s current production, Born Yesterday, may be just enough to, at least temporarily, ease the suffering.
Playwright, musician, comedian, actor, writer, raconteur and all-around renaissance man Garson Kanin’s witty look at politics and corruption, written during the height of World War II, seems perfectly suited for the modern day; it would not be a stretch to envision those monopolizing today’s political headlines as characters in the play.
Yet Kanin tries too hard, laying it on a bit too thick. The final two-thirds of the play come off as preachy, bogged down by trite idealism. And, while many of those protesting in the streets today may cheer Kanin’s efforts, the final result comes off as far too contrived and far-fetched. Some of the comic bits also have a tendency of dragging on, particularly the card playing gag in Act I.
Coincidentally, many of the play’s best moments involve the frequent, quick-hitting alcohol induced one-liners. Kanin would have been better served to be a bit more economical in his delivery throughout the play. Director Amiee Turner also could have imposed a bit more directorial discretion. Fortunately, some fine performances make the play’s shortcomings more palatable.
All the play’s action occurs in a luxurious penthouse suite in Washington, DC. And, once again, OSTC’s set designers, thanks in part to Ethan Allen – their “Partner in Design” – deserve a big hand. With two large, lush chairs and a comfortable looking crème colored couch at center stage, accent pieces fill each nook and cranny. Wall sconces, table lamps and a hanging globe light perfectly illuminate the burgundy painted walls. Two curtained French doors serve as the perfect entryway into this lavish pad.
When a maid busily preparing the suite for its guests scoffs at the idea of anybody paying $235 a night, laughter fills the audience. Of course, back then, such a fee was considered excessive, but it is well within scrap metal dealer and junkman Harry Brock’s budget. Later, when asked by a reporter just how much he is worth, the braggadocious NJ gangster fumbles for an answer.
But Harry’s trappings and wealth are but mere fodder as he and his lawyer, Ed Devery, descend on the nation’s capital with money to burn and a senator to bribe. Yet, he becomes increasingly concerned about his girlfriend, fearing the dim-witted, former chorus girl Billie Dawn may blow his chances with Washington’s elite. So, he enlists the aid of the book-smart journalist Paul Verrall to help educate her.
Yet things go terribly awry when Billie becomes too smart and suddenly decides that Harry is “too dumb” for her! This, of course, sets her mobster beau off into a violent rage. But his anger is quickly diffused when Billie and Paul threaten to expose his and the senator’s corrupt dealings.
Ultimately, Billie ends up inheriting all of Harry’s scrap yards; he and his lawyer foolheartedly put them all in her name to limit his exposure. In a very telling moment early in the play, his lawyer jokes, “She owns more of you than you do.” In the end, the “dumb broad” beats Harry at his own game proving, in fact, that she was not “born yesterday.”
With bouncing, golden locks, NY actor Lara Hayhurst is wonderful as the ditzy Billie Dawn. Though a bit over-the-top at times, she makes it work with a simple tilt of her head or a blank quizzical stare. Quite the looker, she even makes Billie’s drunk-like slurred speech sound endearing.
Wearing a permanent scowl, Robert Ierardi proves to be Hayhurst’s menacing equal. As wise guy Harry Brock, he perfectly balances a frighteningly quick temper with an ambivalent ignorance, often making him the butt of the joke.
Michael Jennings Mahoney nicely tackles the role of Paul Verrall with an impassioned but not over-the-top idealism. But his morphing from bookish nerd into Elliot Ness during the play’s final scene seems a stretch.
As Harry’s perpetually intoxicated lawyer Ed Devery, Sean McGuirk delivers a remarkably crisp and spot-on performance. Torn by his ethics and his loyalty toward Harry, the only way he can cope is by drinking – and he drinks a lot! With his stern “Harvard look,” McGuirk’s drunken barbs are priceless. When Harry angrily asks “are you wasted again?” He calmly replies, “Still.”
OSTC’s production of “Born Yesterday” runs through February 12 at their Jefferson Boulevard theater. For tickets or more information, visit oceanstatetheatre.org.